"And you shall walk in His ways" (Deuteronomy 28:9).
"The Compassionate One is good to all, and His compassion is on all His works" (Psalm 145:9)
As human beings created in the Divine image, we have the potential to emulate the Divine ways; moreover, there is a mitzvah which calls upon us to develop this potential to the best of our human ability - the mitzvah to walk in His ways. Maimonides, in his explanation of this mitzvah, cites the following teaching of our sages:
"Just as the Holy One, blessed be He, is called Compassionate, so should you be compassionate; just as He is called Gracious, so should you be gracious; just as He is called Righteous, so should you be righteous; just as He is called Chasid - the One Who does lovingkindness - so should you be a chasid." (Book of Mitzvos, #8 – based on the Sifri, Deuteronomy 11:22)
According to a classical work on the mitzvos known as "Sefer Charedim" (4:1), the prohibition against tzaar baalei chayim is actually a branch of the mitzvah to walk in the ways of the Compassionate One, for the Divine benevolence and compassion extends to all creatures, as it is written (Psalm 145:9), "The Compassionate One is good to all, and His compassion is on all His works." (Cited in "Nefesh Kol Chai")
We are to emulate the Divine benevolence and love to all creatures. This spiritual consciousness is the legacy which we received from our forefathers and foremothers, and the following story can serve as an example:
After his wife, Sarah, had passed away, Avraham sent his servant Eliezer to Charan where his relatives lived, in order to find a suitable wife for Avraham's son, Yitzchak (Isaac). Eliezer arrived in Charan, and he caused the camels to kneel down outside the city, opposite a well of water, at the time of evening - a time when the young women who usually draw the water come out. Eliezer remembered how Avraham and Sarah taught people to emulate the Divine love and compassion; thus, he understood that the wife for Isaac would have to be a loving and compassionate person. He therefore offered the following prayer to the Compassionate One:
"O Compassionate One, God of my master Avraham, may you so arrange it for me this day, and do lovingkindness to my master Avraham. See, I stand here by the spring of water and the daughters of the townspeople come out to draw the water. Let it be that the maiden to whom I say, 'Please tip your jug so I may drink,' and who replies, 'Drink, and I will also give water to your camels' - her will you have chosen for your servant, for Yitzchak; and may I know through her that you have done lovingkindness with my master." (Genesis 24:12-14)
"Her will you have chosen" – Rashi explains: "She is fitting for him in that she performs acts of lovingkindness, and she is therefore worthy to enter the household of Avraham."
Rabbi Elie Munk, in his biblical commentary known as "The Call of the Torah," makes the following observation regarding the test of character that Eliezer chose: He would only ask for water for himself; however, she would offer to also give water to the camels; thus, her extension of lovingkindness to the animals would be further proof of her goodness.
And so it happened. The young Rivkah (Rebecca) approached the well, and Eliezer asked her for some water. She gave him some water, and she then drew water for all of his camels! When Eliezer later asked her if there was a place in her father's house to stay, she replied, "There is even plenty of straw and feed with us, as well as a place to lodge" (Genesis 24:25). Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary on this verse, writes:
"Here too, Rivkah's fine qualities stand out. She is attentive to the needs of the animals, whose thirst she has just quenched. Once they have had their fill of water, they should be fed. Her sensitivity towards the animals is still activated and animated."
She took responsibility for the welfare of these animals as if they were her own, and her behavior, explains Rabbi Hirsch, is in the spirit of the following verse: "A righteous person understands the feelings of his animals" (Proverbs 12:10).
Rivkah was emulating the ways of the Compassionate One, as it is written, "He gives nourishment to all flesh, for His lovingkindness endures forever" (Psalm 136:25). As the classical commentator, Radak, explains, the nurturing of the Compassionate One extends to "each and every creature."
Many centuries later, when Rivkah's descendants, the People of Israel, would be exiled from the Land of Israel, many of them would settle in countries in Europe which had a colder climate than they were used to. The halachic work "Nefesh Kol Chai" mentions that the activists among the People of Israel would make sure to feed the birds during the freezing weather, when due to the snow, the normal supply of food for the birds was not available.
The stories about the sages who led the People of Israel during the painful exile reveal that these spiritual leaders stressed the importance of emulating the Divine compassion for all creatures, and the following story – told by a disciple of a great Chassidic Rebbe – can serve as an example:
Once our holy master, the Stropkover Rebbe (R. Avraham Shalom Halberstam, 1857-1940) visited the city of Ujhely, Hungary, staying in the home of Rabbi Lemel Schvartz. In the morning, after a long night of Torah study, the Rebbe asked R. Lemel's son, R. Mordechai, for some grain to feed the chickens and geese. The Rebbe explained: "One should emulate the Creator, Whose 'mercy is upon all His works.' It is an especially great mitzvah to show compassion to the creatures of the Holy One, Blessed be He. By doing so, one also elicits God's kindness, causing it to shine upon Israel.
"Another benefit of feeding animals is that it strengthens one's compassion. By doing so the first thing in the morning, it becomes easier to show compassion throughout the day."
Thus did our master conduct himself, feeding the birds a number of times during his stay. (Cited in "The Vision of Eden")
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch was a noted sage and biblical commentator of the 19th century, and we have cited some of his teachings in this series. He and his family lived in Germany, which had cold, snowy winters; thus, Rabbi Hirsch's wife would put food on her window sill every morning for the sparrows who gathered there. After her passing, Rabbi Hirsch continued this practice until his last days. When he was on his final sickbed, he told his sons not to forget to take care of the birds. ("Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch" by Rabbi Eliyahu Meir Klugman - ArtScroll)
A "yahrtzeit" is the anniversary of someone's passing, and I am writing this letter on the eve of the "yahrtzeit" of Rabbi Hirsch – the 27th of Teves, which begins on Thursday evening, January 26th. It is therefore fitting to conclude this letter with a teaching from Rabbi Hirsch regarding the mitzvah to emulate the Divine ways:
"Love is the activity which seeks unasked the welfare and benefit of others. It was love which God desired to be your highest mission, your mark of perfection, and as an example which should constantly spur you to further progress He set before you not a human being...He set Himself before you as a model and said: 'Follow after Me in love.' " (Horeb, Chapter 72)
Have a Good and Sweet Shabbos,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See Below)
Related Teachings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch:
His first published work, ''The Nineteen Letters,'' serves as an excellent introduction to the Torah's universal vision. It was written in the form of letters to a young Jewish intellectual who was alienated from his spiritual roots. In this work, he writes:
"Everything bestowed upon you - mind, body, fellowman, material goods, other creatures, every talent and every power - all are merely means to action, to further and to safeguard everything. With love and with justice! The earth was not created as a gift to you - you have been given to the earth, to treat it with respectful consideration, as God's earth, and everything on it as God's creation, as your fellow creature, to be respected, loved and helped to attain its purpose according to God's Will." (Letter Four)
Rabbi Hirsch also states that ''Judaism, correctly conceived and conveyed, constitutes a bond of love and justice encompassing all creatures'' (Letter Nineteen). "The Nineteen Letters" is published by Feldheim: www.feldheim.com . For information on the ArtScroll biography, "Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch" by Rabbi Eliyahu Meir Klugman, visit: http://www.artscroll.com/linker/hazon/ASIN/RSRP . )